Over a barrel
Some area beer is all about the barrel-aging process.
Beer geeks may envy Jason Heystek’s job.
He’s the head cellar operator at Founders Brewing Co. and one of his tasks is ensuring the quality of Kentucky Breakfast Stout. To do that, he samples each barrel of the beer that has been ranked one of the top beers in the world.
“It sounds really great until you try it,” Heystek said. “It gets exhausting. Your palate gets worn out.”
Heystek is just one of several people in West Michigan charged with running a barrel-aging program, which takes lots of care, patience and maintenance. He’s only been suspicious of one barrel and that was likely because his tongue was burnt out. Founders put it aside for another year, and it came out even better.
Heystek doesn’t just run the barrel-aging program.
“Brewers handle the wort; my team handlesthe fermentation,” he said. Founders’ cellar operators take over after the brewing team pitches the yeast and are in charge of things like dry-hopping and adding ingredients, including things like coffee and fruit, during the fermentation process. The beer moves along to the packaging department after it ferments.
Only two beers are made regularly that require the barrel-aging process: KBS and Backwoods Bastard, both of which have year-long aging targets.
The first year, there were only eight bourbon barrels of KBS, the next year 16 and 32 the next. Now, Heystek has about 2,300 bourbon barrels full of beer to watch over.
“I have some secrets,” he said. “Some of it is by accident though.”
Scaling up the operation has been one of the greatest challenges for Heystek and his team. All of the barrels must be blended together so the beer has a consistent taste across multiple tanks. And all of this must occur while the brewery produces other brands that are not barrel-aged.
One of the early issues for Founders' barrel program was finding the barrels. At one point, explaining to finance why he needed $5,000 in cash for barrels was difficult, Heystek said.
“It can be like getting street drugs,” he said. “You can find a guy who will say, ‘I can get you 30 this afternoon if you get me the money.’”
He finally found legitimate suppliers so barrels now can be treated the same as any other raw material. The barrels generally are used for only one batch of beer. After one use, the bourbon flavor Heystek looks for tends to leave the barrel.
Founders found a company that made maple syrup in bourbon barrels, and makes its Canadian Breakfast Stout using those barrels. The same company is aging hot sauce in spent Founders barrels.
Brian Kuszynski worked with Brewery Vivant owner Jason Spaulding at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, where they’d often drink “sour beer” together. It made sense that Kuszynski eventually would come to work for Spaulding and make the type of beer for which they shared a passion. The beers are made intentionally, with specific yeasts, to taste acidic and tart.
Brewery Vivant uses about 90 percent Jack Daniels barrels but also throws in some barrels used for making wine, cognac and other spirits. Kuszynski said wine barrels are the most desired but are hard to come by.
“If they’re still usable, the winery generally keeps them,” he said. “But we have a barrel broker who gets them from Sonoma and Napa valleys and keeps them well maintained.”
Two years ago, the brewery started receiving the barrels, and the brewers would fill them with beer for tests. Generally, they’ll keep a beer in the bourbon barrels for two weeks to get the bourbon flavor.
“Once whiskey is done, we move them to sours,” Kuzynski said. “Sours are more of a crap shoot but more fun.”
The more uses they can get out of a barrel, the better. But sometimes a barrel goes bad.
“Not every barrel works out,” he said. “We don’t serve a beer that comes out and smells like band aids, sour green apples or nail polish. A barrel on a timeline to infinity will go funky.”
The brewery only uses about 40 barrels right now but is in the process of making more room for the program. Eventually, Kuzynski said they’ll be able to package and distribute the specialty beers.
“We haven’t gotten to the point where a whole batch is brewed for barrels,” he said. “Moving forward, we can just start slipping beers away. I would love to see a sour, wood-aged beer on tap every day of the year.”
At New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Tim Faith fell into a job and is finding his way as woodmaster. It’s a new role he’s making his own.
The brewery already made an annual sour beer, Blue Sunday, which will be his staple. Now, he’s trying different beers with different flavorings. In his office, appropriately labeled “House of Funk,” he sits among 180 barrels that are labeled “Blue Sunday,” “Sour Ichabod” and “MI Nightmare.”
The new job fits him. Faith went to Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and was taking pre-med classes before realizing he wanted to work with beer. He switched to microbiology and created his own internship at Great River Brewing Co. in Davenport, Iowa, where he “played” with yeast. He loves microorganisms and nature, even keeping two beehives behind New Holland’s production brewery.
Before he got the job at New Holland, Faith had never tasted a sour beer. Now he’s slowly becoming an expert, experimenting and talking with other industry professionals at breweries that specialize in sour beers, such as New Belgium Brewing Co.
He pestered New Holland owner Brett VanderKamp to bring in six gigantic wood wine casks from France. Faith said they were hard to find but a bargain, bringing them in for about $6,600 each. He likely will get more in the future.
“These are great: We can use one of these instead of 20 barrels,” he said. “It’s a giant ecosystem.”
For sours, the barrels can be used many times, as long as they don’t churn out bad beer. Generally, New Holland shoots for five generations of barrel use.
“It’s wild fermentation — if it tastes good, you’re doing something right,” Faith said. “Sometimes you get a rotting wood taste and then you just dump it.”
Next to the six giant casks, he also has two metal fermenters. He’s experimenting to see if metal can make as good a sour as wood. “If we prove that, I’ll be out of a job,” he said.
Faith doesn’t just age sours; he also watches over New Holland’s popular Dragon’s Milk bourbon-barrel-aged stout.
The beer sits in a mixture of new bourbon barrels — Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, etc. — and second-use barrels for three months before being blended together and sold. He watches over about 1,000 Dragon’s Milk barrels at a time. In that same cellar, New Holland keeps some other beers, like Pilgrim’s Dole, a wheat wine.
“Some we’ve had sit for six months,” he said. “But nothing too crazy — it’s our money maker. We need it in and out.”
Other beers have sat in barrels for more than four years, Faith said.
“It’s something you can’t cheapen out on,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and care. We don’t rush the beer.”